Justin Thomas filled the Wanamaker Trophy with beers after winning last year. Can he do it again at the 2023 PGA Championship?
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Justin Thomas enjoyed having a bookend Wanamaker Trophy on the dining room table of his rental house he shared with Kevin Kisner at the Charles Schwab Challenge last year, a week after winning the 2022 PGA Championship in a thrilling playoff. When he missed the cut, he flew to Louisville, where he grew up, and his friends were hosting a house party. They filled the famed silver trophy with beer and had a good-old time.
“It’s little stuff like that that’s fun, but unfortunately, we’ve been going through a move and it hasn’t been out and displayed,” Thomas said on Monday, where he will mount his defense at Oak Hill. “Hopefully we’ll have one to bring home and display.”
Thomas has failed to win since the PGA a year ago at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In late March, he dropped out of the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time since August 2017, and enters the week ranked No. 13. He missed the cut at the Masters and for all intents and purpose hasn’t been in the thick of the battle to win since the RBC Canadian Open last June. Asked if he’s in a slump, he replied, “Right now? No. A couple weeks ago or a month ago, probably, yeah.”
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It’s a feeling that Thomas, who won 15 Tour titles, including the 2017 PGA Championship before turning 30 on April 23, is unfamiliar with and he’s determined to change it as soon as humanly possible.
“I’ve never felt so far and so close at the same time,” he said.
But he also believes in the old saying that learning from failures is what makes a man.
“I feel like I’ve had a great opportunity for a lot of learning the past, whatever, six months, couple months, this year,” he said.
Part of Thomas’s winner’s make up is he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. This year, that has included committing to a gluten-free diet for a year and dairy-free for six months. Recently, he added the AimPoint green-reading technique to his repertoire on the greens.
“I’ve always been someone that if I feel like something can improve, I’m gonna try something,” he said.
Thomas grew tired of burning edges on the greens and his putting woes were sinking into other parts of his game. How bad was it?
“I was almost trying to will the ball in the hole because I felt like I just couldn’t make it in reality,” he told Smylie Kaufman on The Smylie Show on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio. “I played a couple times with Keegan [Bradley] at home (who uses AimPoint) and I was just sick of watching him make everything right in my eye. He couldn’t talk enough about it. Max Homa couldn’t talk enough about it. And I said, you know, it’s worth a try.”
Thomas’s father has said that from a young age his son, who he still coaches, liked being in the heat of the moment and would rise up in uncomfortable situations. “He had the guts, the heart and the stomach to want to be in the fight.”
A year ago, at Southern Hills, Thomas appeared to shoot himself out of the tournament with a third-round 74, and trailed Chile’s Mito Pereira by seven strokes heading into the final round. Thomas had played in one of the last groups – he was tired, frustrated, it was cold and getting dark but he went to the range to blow off some steam.
“I couldn’t leave the property or the golf course in that frame of mind. It’s not healthy,” he said. “I needed to really just vent more than anything. You know, I probably, in total, hit a handful of putts and a handful of shots, but probably just talked more than anything and I just needed to all hell break loose and really just let it fly. I wasn’t mad at anybody. It just was, I was frustrated and needed to get it out so that I could leave Southern Hills in a better frame of mind.”
When Thomas played junior golf, his father would point out the kids who would sulk and get so down on themselves that they’d give up.
“That was just something that my parents instilled in me, like you’re not one of those kids,” Thomas said. “You’re not going to give up. You’re not going to quit. Make the best out of whatever you have.”
In the final round, he chipped away at Pereira’s lead, sinking a 60-foot putt at 11 and 15-foot putt at 12 and sensed that he was very much in the thick of the Wanamaker hunt.
“I could just tell, the roar from the crowd, it was a very different roar,” he said after making birdie at 12 as the leaders behind him started to falter. “And it was like a ‘I’m in this tournament’ kind of roar. And I could kind of feel the crowd getting behind me. And that was like a ‘all right, let’s go’ kind of thing.”
Just as it did late on a Sunday in Tulsa, Thomas is hoping that the pieces can fall into place as he makes his eighth PGA Championship appearance. He came out to the course yesterday, just with wedges and putter and walked all 18 holes and just hit chips and putts around the greens. On Monday, Thomas played all 18 holes and tabbed it, “a tough test.” He’s mired in what for him merits a slump but just as like last year, he knows it possible to go from feeling as if you’ve blown a chance to win a major on Saturday night to drinking beers from the trophy not long after.
“Next thing you know, you don’t even remember what you were thinking in those (tough) times,” he said.
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